Justin Hilliard2

Mailbag: Summer sessions, Shamrock Series, point-spreads and more

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Another spirited mailbag. I especially enjoy seeing your answers in the comments, hopefully these live up to your own.

Let us begin.

mediocrebob: With the new rules regarding summer workouts, how involved are the coaches right now and do these workouts give the incoming freshman a better opportunity to get a feel for the next level? Do these workouts benefit offensive skill players more than say a Nyles Morgan?

The tweak in rules is a pretty big deal, and probably hasn’t been talked about enough. While Kelly has only discussed what the offensive coaches are doing to take advantage of the ability to work on the playbook and football specific skills (no using actual footballs), Kelly said the team is handling the workouts like the NFL’s OTAs (Organized Team Activities), and offensively, the team is reinstalling the offense during the summer, getting them into fall camp ahead of schedule.

Of course, a reinstall is probably more crucial on defense, as Brian VanGorder used the 15 spring practices to initially install the new system. For Nyles Morgan, who wasn’t a part of spring football, this is a crucial time for his development. And the opportunity to work with his defensive coaches, not just Paul Longo and his staff, is key.

Looking for a good tidbit on Morgan understanding his opportunity? He was on campus and spotted during the Irish Invasion, looking physically impressive for an incoming freshman.

 

johngaltisspeaking: Will we see a QB carousel with Zaire and Golson this season or are we doing to see one QB take the reins? Also while Golson’s play has been the best in BK tenure it seems that the up speed Oregon style offense was never run. Is BK trying to run more of a Oregon style offense or Auburn Offense ? I would love to know exactly what type offense he is going to install this year.

Carousel might not be the right term, but I fully expect Zaire to see the field early for the Irish, getting him his first taste of college football on Notre Dame’s terms, not in an emergency situation.

As for the Irish offense with Golson, I spent some time writing about it here. But I don’t think you’re going to see Oregon’s offense or Gus Malzahn’s offense. But you will see Brian Kelly’s spread offense, the first time they’ve been able to run it to his liking since he’s been in South Bend.

 

notredameirish1980: Your prediction: After the Barnett flip, will ND pass on a QB this year given that they probably return 3 scholarship QB’s next season, two with multiple years of eligibility, and concentrate on getting the RKG for 2016? 

While Barnett’s decommitment hurt, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as others are making it out to be. While some worry that 2014 might be Golson’s final season in South Bend, I have a hard time understanding the logic behind that decision. And with two other quarterbacks with four full seasons of eligibility, it’s far from a NEED position.

That being said, the staff has made additional offers, though Travis Waller’s looking more and more destined for Oregon and not Notre Dame after it looked like he was trending Irish.

But if you’re looking for a 2015 quarterback that ND is targeting? Start looking at some of the committed prospects. Everett Golson wasn’t on anybody’s radar when he was a long-time North Carolina commit. And Gunner Kiel was a pipedream between his commitments to Indiana and LSU.

Weird things will happen. Probably the best thing to happen to the Irish was Barnett flaking out in June, not January.

 

rocket1988: Do you see the addition of home and homes with SEC teams being the death of Shamrock Series games? And top three cities you’d like to see a one off game in?

No way. I think the Shamrock Series is here to stay and will be a part of Notre Dame’s scheduling plans for a long time. Upcoming games in Indy, Fenway Park, and back to the Alamodome have Notre Dame locked in through 2016.

The home-and-home with Georgia was more about getting the Irish into the state and SEC, finding a top-shelf SEC program that also wasn’t morally or academically bankrupt.

But since you asked, here are my top three cities for a Shamrock Series game?

1) San Diego: Getting a game in Petco Park and into the southern-most part of Southern California would be a ton of fun. And the venue can’t be beat.

2) “South Florida:” (Yes, I know that’s not a city…) Getting ND into an interesting game in the talent-rich South Florida area should be on the agenda… especially to erase the last appearance in the Miami area. Staying on the baseball theme, maybe playing in the Marlins new stadium?

3) Vancouver: This might be outside of the box, but how about a game in Vancouver’s BC Place? The stadium fits 54,000 for football, takes Notre Dame into the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and could be an awesome game against someone like Washington. (Plus we could eat lots of salmon.)

 

simmel65: I have always loved how Notre Dame plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation, but are we getting to the point where that might be counterproductive? Look at Alabama’s schedule. They always have a bye or a patsy before a big game. Our schedule is so dependent on everyone else’s, that it seems like we are going to end up stacking a ton of solid teams up in a row which just may end up keeping us out of the playoffs. Thoughts?

Welcome to life as college football’s lone (major) independent. Notre Dame needs to play a tougher schedule to get into the final four spots without a conference title to win. But expect to see some of those cupcakes erased from schedules as the Big Ten goes to nine conference games and schools start to miss out on an opportunity to get into the playoff based on strength of schedule.

Do some upcoming Notre Dame schedules look too tough? Sure. But the 2012 schedule looked to be the toughest on paper in the country and Notre Dame walked through that just fine.

 

ndrocks2: Surprised Koyack is getting preseason mentions as one of best TE’s? Is it based on how we use the position or is he the real deal just buried on depth chart in the past?

Koyack should be on the Mackey Award watch list, if only because every Notre Dame starting tight end over the last decade has at least been a semifinalist for the award. Sure, it’s mostly based on the reputation of Irish tight ends putting up big seasons, but also because Koyack is a 6-foot-5, 261-pound monster who is going to be counted on to play a major role in the Irish offense.

I think Koyack is poised for a big season. He’s got to clean up some of the drops and mental mistakes he’s made, but he’s going to be one of the key pieces to Notre Dame’s offense.

 

onward2victory: Keith, if you were a betting man, which of the Golden Nugget ND spreads do you like most? Is FSU really 24 points better than us?!?

At this point in the year, who knows what’s going to happen. But a look at Florida State versus the competition last year, and you get an idea as to why the point spread is so inflated.

As for the early lines — and no, I’m no longer a betting man (Thanks Bush & Leinart) — no line was released for the Rice game, but I’d expect the Irish to be around a 10-point favorite against a sneaky Owls team that won 10 games last year.

But other than that, Notre Dame is favored in every game except Stanford (ND’s a +6 home dog), The Seminoles (+24), at Arizona State (+4.5) and visiting USC, getting a surprising 10 points.

As a betting man, I’d feel pretty good about hitting the Arizona State and USC games. Taylor Kelly should lead a pretty prolific offense, but the Sun Devils are a mess on defense. As for USC, Notre Dame’s won three of four against the Trojans and I’m not seeing how giving 10 points makes a bunch of sense for Steve Sarkisian’s first Trojan squad.

 

iamgolden4life: Keith, I wondering if we were to land Hilliard July 2 if you will do an article on who the most likely to follow him to South Bend. I also know of course we may miss on him, but he looks very happy and comfortable in the pics of him I’ve seen while visiting ND.

Hilliard will announce his college choice on July 2, as will Jashon Cornell. It sounds like it’ll be a package deal, which answers your question. Hilliard and Cornell have struck an unlikely friendship, two elite defensive prospects that want to play football together in college.

Most feel like this is Ohio State’s recruitment to lose. But I still feel like Notre Dame is in a good place to win these two, a gigantic swing in recruiting. (Wide receiver Myles Boykin will announce on the 2nd as well, making my travel day home to Minnesota a fairly hectic one.)

As for Hilliard, I’m just ready for his recruitment to end. Between he and Cornell trolling multiple fanbases on Twitter, it’s hard to get angry at a kid who is just trying his best to enjoy a process grown-up football fans ruined, but Notre Dame’s staff have done everything you could ask from them.

I pointed it out last week, but Hilliard’s comments on Notre Dame — and the comfort he feels with the players and what the school does academically for him — and the perfect comments you want to hear from an Irish recruit. If Notre Dame doesn’t land him? He just didn’t want it.

Either way, wish the kid well and understand why Brian Kelly says Notre Dame’s not for everyone and they often have to shop from a different aisle.

 

onward2victory: In the spirit of pure speculation, which opposing QB that ND will face would start over Golson if that QB was Irish?

Good question. Let’s just put Jameis Winston here for now, as the returning Heisman Trophy winner is the perfect quarterback for Brian Kelly’s offense. Other than that, I think the only other QB on this list would be Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, and that’d be a heckuva competition between the two.

 

ndtod: Not football related, but WTH. Played the Warren course recently and rumor is a big tournament coming there in 2019 or 2020. Prior to that, school considering building villas or cottages on the course. True? What say you?

I have not heard this rumor, but I’m assuming something like the US Amateur or the Women’s Am? And if so — AWESOME.

I highly doubt many have played the Warren Course more than me, as I spent about five days a week wandering those fairways (let’s be honest, a lot of rough, too) as a student in the course’s opening years. It’s a wonderful track that’s only getting better with age, and getting one of the early Coore-Crenshaw designs was a pretty impressive move by Notre Dame brass.

I’d be shocked if there was ever a plan to build condos or villas on the course. I don’t know where they would fit and the property isn’t outfitted for roads or a housing development like some of the other golf course developments from the 1980s and 90s.

But thanks for the update on the course. And the reminder to bring my sticks next time I’m in South Bend.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.